And you’re seeing the change when these young women go back into their communities.
Oh yes. I am. And not just in themselves. You see how hard they work in their own communities, how hard they work to get media to pay attention to the messages, meet with their ministers, to go back to their schools, to engage other girls to see the potential in themselves. So picking these young women, you’ve got to be careful. Because you’re asking them to be ambassadors for change.
Well that’s interesting because you’re bringing these young women—some of them from places where religion and state are not separate—of vastly different backgrounds together. Have you seen any conflicts between them emerge?
Yeah, I mean, I wouldn’t call it conflict. But I would say there are times, particularly in the early days when they all come together. But they don’t struggle necessarily to see the other’s point of view because they’re so open-minded and they’re so eager. Like, here’s a group of girls who know they’ve been chosen for this from 1200 applications. So they’re invested in already. They’ve had media training, access to some information they would not have otherwise had; they’ve got a bundle of reading that they’ve had to do. So they walk into the room they’re eager and excited and nervous. Where I think you see the dynamic between different cultures and the different ways that these girls have been raised, or the way that they think, is when they spend an entire day negotiating their recommendations. They will fight for what they believe in. And it is phenomenal.
Do you grapple with moving past prejudice, which can come from our narrative and the narrative of our parents and of our cultures?
Yes. And it goes deeper than that. All of these girls have access to some kind of communication. They’re all worldly. They probably all come with their own perception of what each culture is—whether it’s timid or outspoken or whatever. I don’t know how it all plays out. We haven’t seen a pattern of: “these countries hang out with these countries,” or anything like that. In the lead-up to the summit, they all have to write something, and we share it amongst them. We try to just kill all those pre-conceived notions before they even walk in the same room.
I didn’t set out to create an alumni of young leaders. But now, we’ve created this network of young women who help each other. So for example, today I was on their Facebook group, and one of them said, “I’m doing research on X, Y, Z, can anyone tell me blah, blah, blah?” Well, within like 45 minutes, she had 10 responses from 10 different girls in 10 different countries.
So what originally gave you the idea?
When the woman who was the benefactor and I first met, we decided we were going to work in three areas. One of the three areas was girls and women. I struggled for about six months trying to figure out what we could do that was not going to duplicate what other people were doing, was not going to compete with other people. So I went through a number of different things we could do, none of them panned out, none of them seemed like they could be a good idea.
Canada was hosting the G20. I was reading the paper. I went to bed. Four o’clock in the morning, I woke up and went, “We’re going to have a G(irls)20!” She said, “I really like the idea but let’s pitch it to some people.” So we put together a group of six people.
I pitched the idea and six months later, of course, we had our first summit. It worked because it was great timing. I wanted to make sure we were going to work in the space between politics and economics, because I think that’s where change happens. And she took a leap of faith. And boom, there we were. I wish there was something more academic to the creation of this. But truly, it was timing, thinking creatively, having someone who would believe in the idea and then just putting your head down and getting it done.
Your work is inspiring, but I guess sometimes it’s intimidating—if you’re sitting at home going, Yeah, I don’t have any fabulous ideas. I’m stuck in a job that I hate. But I really, really care about the world and I want to be a part of change. What part do we play?
I love this question. I think change is so individual. You can be a part of it no matter what. I started off doing volunteer work. People should figure out what they are passionate about. They’ll find some way to make a difference. You can be on a board, it means you can be a volunteer, it can mean just about anything. We are not limited by access anymore. Technology has made the world a smaller place. So you could be passionate about gorillas in Uganda and do something about it.
I agree. But I spent many years personally feeling paralysed by all the things I wanted to do and no immediate awareness of the access points to do it…
We have to increase those access points. I want to create something called Girls on Boards. My vision is, by the time you’re 20, you should be on a community board. It’s not just about serving on boards, it’s not just about cutting a check, in fact, it should be anything but those things in some cases. People need to feel invited. People need to feel empowered. If you can create that, then people will come.
You use a word that’s my favourite word in the whole world: “empowered.” But to make someone else feel empowered, to lead a change where others feel empowered, that actually takes a great leader.
But you’ve got to create that space, right? I very rarely do these types of interviews that focus on me, by the way. Because I do think the power of G(irls)20 is the delegates and our partners. And we’ve created that space where people can share that stage. To me that’s the recipe for success.